While the name Land Observations captures the broad strokes of James Brooks' geographically inspired music, it's more passive than his approach actually is. The former Appliance member practiced a remarkably engaged kind of observing on his acclaimed debut, Roman Roads IV-XI, which lived up to its ancient yet timeless inspiration in its deceptive simplicity. By skillfully layering guitars with hints of motorik rhythms, Brooks encompassed post-rock, ambient, and Krautrock so seamlessly that it belied the effort behind the music. On The Grand Tour, he employs some subtle changes that deliver significant results. Like Roman Roads IV-XI, Brooks' second album is another study in artful repetitions and layers inspired by travel and history, albeit more recent: the set takes its name from the extensive journey across Europe that university graduates once took in order to better appreciate the Continent's art, music, and architecture. But where his debut felt like a continuous song-journey, this imaginary voyage through Western, Central, and Southern Europe has delineated movements that sound like stops on a tour. And while Brooks' modus operandi is largely the same as before -- he recorded the album on a single electric guitar -- The Grand Tour's sound is fittingly warmer and more lavish. The gorgeous washes of sound and melodic counterpoint on the cheery opening track, "On Leaving the Kingdom for the Well-Tempered Continent," prove that the Brian Eno comparisons Roman Roads IV-XI drew were on point, while the mellow finale "Return to Ravenna" emphasizes Brooks' skill at sending his songs gently skyward. "The Brenner Pass" and "Walking the Warm Colonnades" nod to his debut's insistent tension, but more often Brooks opts for a softer ebb and flow, as on the shimmering post-rock lullaby "From the Heights of the Simplon Pass" or "Nice to Turin"'s sweetly hypnotic chug. The Grand Tour's standouts balance the album's fuller sound with Roman Roads IV-XI's drive: the way "Flatlands and the Flemish Roads" interlocks its simple parts into a complex, kinetic whole is the musical equivalent of a clock's gears, while "Ode to Viennese Streets"' tempo play -- which blends a stately main part, brisk double-time accompaniment, and slow streaking washes that suggest sunbeams -- is as evocative as it is precise. It could be argued that Brooks trades intensity for pleasure on The Grand Tour, but as the album moves from dazzling to serene and back again, he sounds more assured than ever.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares